The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Is this “au revoir” or “adieu” for classical music at the Wisconsin Union Theater, The Ear asks after pianist Peter Serkin performs Beethoven and new music to bring down to the curtain? | May 11, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night’s piano recital by Peter Serkin (below) at the Wisconsin Union Theater was certainly timely.

It was a perfect event for bringing down the curtain for the next two seasons at the Union Theater as the Memorial Union undergoes a major renovation in time to reopen for the theater’s 75th anniversary season in September of 2014.

The question is: Does this mean “au revoir” or “adieu” – that is, “until next time” or “farewell” – to classical music at the Wisconsin Union Theater after 73 seasons?

(NOTE: A Curtain Down Party and Open House will be held — free and open to the public — from 2 to 6 p.m. this Saturday. For details, see

I speak as someone who sincerely hopes the answer is “Au revoir.” After all, I have often referred to the Wisconsin Union Theater as “The Carnegie Hall of Madison.” It is where The Great Ones have played – and continue to play — as you will see shortly in my review of Peter Serkin’s Beethoven, which was done on the same legendary stage where I heard his famous father Rudolf Serkin (below) also perform Beethoven 40 years ago. Now that is tradition and legacy! History and longevity!

But I also know that classical music has been a tough sell for the past several seasons at the Wisconsin Union Theater. The audiences are dwindling, due, I am sure, to competing events, to tough economic times and to shifting priorities in how young people – or older people, for that matter – choose to spend their discretionary money and leisure time.

While the jazz festival and world music series continue to draw large crowds or even sold-out houses, the classical concerts usually sell under half a house.

How long, one has to ask, can that go on?

True, next season, the Union Theater’s four classical concerts will largely take place in Mills Hall, the same hall in the UW School of Music where pianist Jeffrey Siegel (who will mark his 25th anniversary performing “Keyboard Conversations” in Madison) and the UW faculty and the school’s guest artists now perform. It has about 750 seats compared to the Union Theater’s 1,200 seats.

In addition, the classical series is holding down ticket prices and is trying out scheduling mini-concerts at non-traditional times in non-traditional venues — at lunchtime at the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery, for example — to generate interest and audience.

Plus, there is clearly a decision to mix in some of the appeal of world music by booking groups like the Grammy-winning Imani Winds (below, below in a photo by Jeff Fisano) and The Knights chamber orchestra (below middle) with the pippa player Wu Man (below bottom) in a Silk Road Ensemble-type event .

More traditional classical bookings include cellist Joshua Roman (below top, in a photo by Tina Su), who will do a solo recital and also play a concerto with the UW Symphony Orchestra; and up-and-coming pianist Jeremy Denk (below bottom), who first appeared there as an accompanist for violinist Joshua Bell and last season played a fabulous and monumental recital of J.S. Bach and Ives and who offered a master class and blogging workshop as well as a lecture on Chopin at the UW School of Music.

For details, visit:

You have to believe that cultural arts director Ralph Russo (below, in a photo by Jeff Miller of UW-Madison) and the student directors whom he works with are doing their very best to make the classical concert series succeed. But I already have heard several veteran subscribers who say they will pass on subscription tickets next season and wait to see what else is happening that week or day.

That doesn’t bode well –- though I could be, and hope that I am, wrong.

Time will tell, as they say. Maybe larger new audiences will indeed replace lost audiences. Something has to happen, that is for sure.

Whatever it takes for the Wisconsin Union Theater’s classical series to succeed and become popular again, I hope that is what happens. But I do fear for the worst – which is that it will continue to wind down to the point of disappearing. That would be a shame. We just can’t let that happen.

AS FOR PETER SERKIN (below): It was a memorable concert that featured Serkin’s specialties.

The first half was devoted to contemporary music by British composer Oliver Knussen, Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu and American composer Charles Wourinen.

Of them all, I preferred the “Adagio” by Wuorinen (below), which had a great sense of spaciousness and placidness while so much contemporary music seems abusively aggressive.

But I also have to confess that largely atonal new music is not my thing and that I find the music just can’t get traction, as they say, on my being.

I think I need more melody or tunes in the music, more obvious sense-making or structure and emotional directness with less cerebral puzzle-solving, for new music to reach me and seem like something other than R&D – or research and development. I seek emotional resonance.

I think you could play a sampling from any one of the pieces and almost no one could tell you which composer or which piece it was.

I also think it says something that even someone as experienced with those works as Peter Serkin – who commissioned the Wuorinen and Knussen and continues to champion them in performance – had to use scores to play them. On the other hand, the hour-long, late-life magnum opus “Diabelli” Variations by Beethoven (below) proved no challenge technically, musically or memory-wise. For players or listener, the Diabellis stick, so to speak, while the other works do not.

Playing without a score, Serkin turned it a fabulous interpretation that treated each of the 33 virtuosic and encyclopedic variations on an insipid  simple waltz by Beethoven’s publisher Anton Diabelli (below) as a discreet composition unto itself.

Even for someone like me – who finds any number of Beethoven’s piano sonatas to be much more rewarding music than these often pedantic as well as inspired variations – found many memorable moments, like the subtle fugue, where the music and the performer (who has recorded the Diabellis twice) all came together. 

But it is the kind of program where opinion can vary widely. So here are some others.

Here is a link to Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and its blog Classically Speaking:

And here is a review for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal by Lindsay Christians:

What did you think of Peter Serkin’s recital?

And what do you think about the future of the Wisconsin Union Theater and about its next season?


  1. Having now lived in the Madison area only for a couple of years now, I have to issue a strong “second” to everything John Rinehart says. I would frankly have to say that Classical music listeners should view the Wisconsin Union Theater as “adieu” rather than “au revoir”. The three concerts I’ve attended over the past two years share the aspects of insufficient attendance relative to size and an age demographic far too weighted to the old. I also agree that there is curiously little advertising associated with concerts of this sort, at least relative to Classical Music events at the Overture Center. Denk, Serkin, and Goulding all certainly deserved better.

    I did ask one of the students manning the closing ceremony sign-up station about this, and she said that World Music, Jazz Music, and some other events DO in fact fill the house — and so it would make sense to me going forward simply to shift solo and chamber Classical music events “automatically” to Mills Hall in the Humanities Building of UW (with perhaps a few exceptions). Of course, they have to do this for the next two years; but, beyond that, it makes good sense just to continue that. It’s preferable to asking artists of their stature to play to a half-empty house.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — May 14, 2012 @ 7:35 am

  2. A few Decembers ago the Waverley Consort presented their Christmas Story at the Union Theatre. My husband and I were in the third row of the lower balcony; shortly before the performance began, two couples with three very young (I’m guessing between five and eight) children and an infant in arms came in and sat in the first row right in front of us. My heart sank; “What are they thinking, bringing young children to something like this?” went through my mind. The performance began; the children were spellbound, hanging over the edge of the balcony, no fidgeting, no whispering — and no parental admonitions to “sit still and be quiet.” At one point a father quietly took the baby out, presumably to change a diaper, and quietly returned. At intermission the children bounced and talked with great animation, but when the second half began, they were again mesmerized.

    Shame on me for doubting that young children enjoy great art. Shame on our society for supporting ever-fewer opportunities to see and hear it.

    Comment by Susan Fiore — May 11, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

  3. Jake,
    Once again, you have made some significantly uneducated comments about contemporary music. I am amused that you enjoyed the Wourinen the most because of the “great sense of spaciousness and placidness,” especially since “so much contemporary music seems abusively aggressive.” The idea that most contemporary music is “abusively aggressive” is completely untrue, and frankly, offensive.

    I also find this idea particularly interesting in this story, considering the works and composers being discussed. Of the three contemporary composers, Wourinen is by far the most “abusively aggressive,” at least historically. Even Elliot Carter has criticized him for his harshness. However, this is a byproduct of his compositional method, a method, while not appreciated by some, which is still quite relevant and important. It’s interesting to me that you would make a statement suggesting (in a round about way) that the music of Takemitsu is more abrasive than Wourinen. Had you done your research, you would find that Takemitsu’s music has huge ties to the French music of the 20th century. One can easily hear influences of Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen. His music is colorful, emotional and meditative. You may be the first critic in history to call his music more harsh than Wourinen’s, and I don’t think that’s really something to be proud of.

    You also critique Serkin for using music. It is generally accepted amongst pianists that anything written after WWII can (and in many situations should) be played with music. The qualities within the standard repertoire that allow us to memorize historical pieces easily are standard forms and harmonies. Is it possible to memorize modern works? Absolutely. However, by doing so, one finds themselves relying on muscle memory as opposed to theory (in some cases). This is not a good thing, as muscle memory tends to fail in high pressure situations. Take a look at any concert pianist with new music in their repertoire, and they will more often than not use music, especially for non-tonal works. Pierre Laurent Aimard, the first winner of the Messiaen Competition, even does it.

    I really think you should start researching the modern composers you choose to write about. I understand you’re giving a review of the concert and want to express how certain works made you feel, but you’re also offering off-the-cuff and uninformed opinions to the public, which is irresponsible. A serious art and music critic living in the 21st century would not dismiss entire periods simply because he or she does not completely understand them. A responsible art and music critic living in the 21st century would not write about things he or she doesn’t understand, because they know the public reads what they write and will take the information they gather as fact.

    Comment by karllarsonpiano — May 11, 2012 @ 9:05 am

    • Hi Karl,

      Lately I have been trying not to reply frequently and to let readers have the last word. But when I am misrepresented, then I feel I have to reply in some way.


      I did NOT say that Wuorinen’s music, or the compositional method he chooses, is not aggressive generally — just that this piece seemed the most enjoyable of the three to me that night because of its extended quieter qualities. Big difference there. Even Peter Serkin in his Q-and-A with me said as much and compared it to the more frenetic scherzo movement that will eventually will make up a suite of three pieces along with the pace in question.

      Yes, in fact I also know about the ties between Takemitsu and the French composers. And I love a lot of the French composers’ works. But so what? I nonetheless found this particular piece much more boring and bland than any number of works by Ravel, Debussy and Messiaen, although they all have works of varying quality and appeal too. I don’t like some of their works either. That doesn’t mean that other of their works don’t have value.

      I said MANY — NOT most — contemporary pieces seems aggressive and even abusive toward the listeners, which may be one reason why a lot of people don’t connect with it. I stand by that. If that offends you, well go right ahead and be offended.

      It seems you never find anything critical to say about contemporary music — which is part of what I dislike about so many contemporary music fans who treat new music as a cult in which you HAVE to believe. They often, not always, seem rather totalitarian in their defense of contemporary music. They brook no disagreement or questioning. Kind of a reverse Stalinism, no?

      Some new music works for me, though I admit relatively little; and much of it doesn’t. I clearly placed the blame on my own preferences and connecting with it, not on the music. But I also said the the Diabelli’s are not my favorite Beethoven pieces, and so far I have received no tirades from disapproving Beethoven fans who seem to allow more room for disagreement and personal preference without resorting to invective or insult than you do.

      Anyone is allowed to have favorites, I think, in no matter what era, old or new. That is true for all the arts and for literature. And believe me, this is not the first time I have heard these composers.

      As for using a score: I am aware of the custom or standard practice. Some conductors use score; a few don;t. Most chamber musicians do. I also wish more pianists would use a score in no matter what period of music they are playing. The great pianist Sviatoslav Richter did that as he got older and it seemed to help him. You are absolutely right about the unreliability of muscle memory during nervous stress to say nothing of the element of showmanship memorization adds to a concert. But other musicians, including the pianist Murray Perahia, defend the practice of memorization and say it helps them know the music better and to feel freer in their interpretations. I leave it to the performers to decide. I simply remarked on the contrast — not to approve or disapprove of it. I heard others in the audience doing the same.

      In the review, I clearly offered opinions and referred to them as such — not as facts, I can’t prevent it if people, including you, misread me or try to twist what I say to make a case they themselves want to make.

      You are free to write your own review of the Peter Serkin concert. I would be happy to post your review either as a comment or a regular entry, or to provide a link to one you post on another blog. There is room for subjectivity and disagreement in art.

      So, continue to enjoy new music and I hope you find a lot of it. My goal is really not to detract from your preferences, but just to develop and explain my own. That is what a personal blog is for, last I looked.


      Comment by welltemperedear — May 11, 2012 @ 10:05 am

      • Jake,
        I certainly don’t like all contemporary music; however, I do consider it to be a valid and essential entity in modern society. I don’t particularly care for Wourinen or Knussen, as well as many others. However, if you’re going to speak in broad terms, I am forced to as well. When you say that much of the contemporary music being made is “abusively aggressive,” that is painting with a very wide brush, and you’re using language that is specifically negative.

        I think it’s absolutely fine that you don’t like this kind of music, which, I suspect, could largely be regarded under the umbrella of “modernism.” This sort of music is often angular and abstract, and tends to turn people off, myself included. However, I am not about to begin to use vocabulary like “abusive.” Indeed, much of this repertoire is aggressive, but it represents a time, a place and a socio-political atmosphere, and should be regarded as an important piece of music history, not an offensive nuisance.

        One of the earlier comments on this page asks the question: why is the concert going public shrinking? Where is the youth? Here is my answer. The concert attendance for classical music events is dwindling, especially amongst the youth, because there is very little about classical music programming these days that is refreshing.

        I have nothing against programming standard repertoire. I think it’s an essential part of the music world and to cut ties with it would be an irreparable mistake. However, the new music world receives such a large amount of hostility and dismissal from “classical music lovers,” a concept that still baffles me.

        New music should be encouraged and treated with respect so that classical music continues to be performed into the future. With fresh new programming, concert halls can attract new audiences, creating a base for future concert attendance. I wish when people hear a modern piece they don’t like that they would, instead of heading back into the cannon, look at the present in search of something they are interested in and can support. Beethoven doesn’t need a patron; new musicians do.

        Comment by karllarsonpiano — May 11, 2012 @ 10:51 am

      • Hi again Karl,

        I think part of the misunderstanding between us is that you are over-reacting to my use of “abusive,” which I use largely because I think many composers choose to ignore the audience and then complain about not getting enough recognition.

        So I’m willing to change that. Maybe “punitive” or “inattentive” would suffice.

        You seem to suggest that we owe new music something. I think that’s baloney. No art is entitled to acceptance. It earns its audiences and appreciation, whether its is early music, Baroque or Classical or Romantic, or modern and new.

        I think you are right that some young people are hoping for some new music perhaps; but even more are hoping for plain old informality and affordability. Also, I think they have been less exposed to it at home, in school and through the culture at large than many older listeners were. But I really don’t think new music is the cure-all some would say.

        Old can be just as exciting as new, sometimes more so.

        And it may be that the era of art music or concert hall music is pretty much over, what with other art forms — movies, rock, TV — taking its place.

        In any a case, there isn’t one single answer to dwindling attendance, but many.

        And new music or new visual art or new dance isn’t automatically entitled to respect. Respect is based on results.

        A lot of it seems to me disposable and not aspirating to anything more than being composed any maybe heard.

        So I think we have a basic disagreement of attitude or assumption. Bur why should I feel blighted to support someone who feels no connection to me — at leads none that I can perceive?

        If it speaks to me, I listen. If it doesn’t, I tune out. End of the song.

        Thanks for the interesting discussion.


        Comment by welltemperedear — May 11, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

  4. Well, I, for one, just purchased a season ticket to the Union Series for next year, and am NOT renewing my subscription to the Madison Symphony. It seemed as though they were just playing too many very familiar pieces. I’ll still probably attend some of their concerts, but will pick and choose more.

    Comment by westmelrose — May 11, 2012 @ 9:03 am

  5. Jake,
    I have been dismayed by the dwindling numbers at the concert series over the past few years. I have come to several conclusions. Madison concert goers want to hear a world class performer such as Peter Serkin when he appears with a symphony, but not in a recital setting. A symphony is more entertaining and distracting, whereas a recital causes us to really have to focus to get our musical fix. The first half of Serkin’s recital really tested us. The symphony also shows us how Madisonians love a social event where we see people all dressed up rather than a gathering of plaid shirted retired professors. If I had to choose over the past ten years between the symphony and the union concert series as to which has given me the greater musical memories, it would be the union hands down. I may be an atypical music fan, but concerts such as Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica stand out in my mind much more than any symphony concert with the exception of a few.

    When I discuss upcoming union concerts with my friends who have an interest in classical music, I often get quizzical looks. They often are in the dark as to the fact that a “Carnegie Hall experience” is about to happen in Madison’s midst. This tells me that the marketing of the concerts is ineffective. I realize that the budget is not there, but there must be a better way of getting the word out. There was so much buzz when Serkin played with the symphony. When he plays a much more substantive program at the union, nothing.

    My biggest question is where are the students? The music students should be required to be there, but I see few even when someone their own age appears such as Caroline Goulding. What is the university doing to encourage students to gain cultural exposure. I went to to a college that required us to attend six cultural events each quarter. Could credit be given for attending and reviewing a certain number of events? Money doesn’t appear to be the issue when the demographic data is examined.

    It makes me sad to consider losing the union concert series. To have such up close musical experiences with the best that the world has to offer is an opportunity that can’t be replaced. Going to Carnegie Hall is not an option for most of us. At least not with any frequency. What a treasure we have.

    John Rinehart

    Comment by John Rinehart — May 11, 2012 @ 7:45 am

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